Women In Prison Collection
By: David Michael Brown on March 28, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Umbrella Entertainment (Australia). Region 4, PAL. 4:3. English 2.0. 350 minutes
The Movie
Director: Gerardo de Leon/ Jack Hill/ Don Spencer/ Joe D' Amato
Writer: David Osterhout & James. H. Watkins/ Jack Hill/ Jack Hill/ John & Joyce Corrington
Starring: Pam Grier, Sid Haig, Judith Brown. Margaret Markov Music: Tito Arevalo/ Hall Daniels/ William. A. Catleman/ Francesco de Masi
Country: USA/Philippines
Year: 1971/ 1971/ 1972/ 1974
Some genre's just can't help but raise a smile. The Roger Corman Women in Prison movies are one such group of films. You just have to laugh at the sheer audacity of the filmmakers to attempt to make such a blatantly sexist excuse to get a group of scantily clad women, in close proximity, doing all those things that women do in prison. Leeringly shot shower scenes, vicious catfights and salacious lesbianism are all thrown into the mix but with a saucy wink at the camera. We're not talking the nasty Nazi atrocity films like SS Experimentation Camp and Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, these films have a sense of fun about them; maybe it's the enthusiastic acting, the dodgy looking sets in the Philippines, maybe its just the presence of the delectable Pam Grier kick starting her film career, but even during a few of the more torturous moments you can't help but expect to see Weng Weng, of For Your Height Only fame, jump out and weave his pint sized magic. The fact that the legendary producer and King of the Filipino film industry Eddie Romero was involved with a couple of the films only adds to the intrigue.

The first film we'll look at in the set is the best and also marks a few more significant firsts. Big Doll House was Pam Grier's first speaking role, after a brief appearance in Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of The Dolls, and also the first film she made with director Jack Hill who went on to work with her in Coffy and Foxy Brown. Grier sets the screen on fire, she exudes a sexy sassiness at all times, you just know that this woman can handle herself. The film also stars another Jack Hill regular Sid Haig who went on to star in Spider Baby amongst many more. Digital Retribution readers will know him well as Captain Spaulding in Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects. The plot set the template for all the film's that followed as a group of women led by Collier, played by Julie Brown, plan to bust themselves out of their prison whilst avoiding the punishments dealt out by the villainous warden Ms Dietrich, Christiane Schmidmer, and the back stabbing of snitch Grear, played by Pam Grier, who is selling secrets to feed her lesbian lovers smack habit. The dialogue is fabulous, in one instance a topless inmate is being inspected by the prison doctor who declares "You don't look like a hardened criminal to me!" but on seeing his crass comments may have fallen on embarrassed ears he reassures the newly imprisoned girl, "Don't worry, It's my first day too!" Pam Grier sings the film's theme tune "Long Time Woman" to round off an almost perfect exploitation film.

Big Bird Cage pretty much follows the formula with the addition of the torture chamber that gives the film its title. The girls get tortured by the camp line up of guards, none of whom have any interest in the woman, but they always manage to look fabulous in hot pants, skimpy cut-off denim shorts and halter tops. No boring prison fatigues for this film. Haig's guard is a hilariously over the top creation and the whole film ends guns blazing as the girls escape and head into the jungle. This film ups the humour without lessening the naked flesh and dubious moments of human degradation but remains a fun romp, especially when the girls escape.

Woman Behind Bars turns the tables and has Grier playing the prisons head guard. She delights in torturing her inmates and will quite happily turn on her lesbian lovers if she doesn't get her way. The plot regarding slave trade and prostitution is a mere excuse to get the ladies behind bars. Despite the usual lashings of female flesh and over the top performances the thing that the film lacks more than anything is the sure hand of director Jack Hill. Gerardo de Leon, veteran of Mad Doctor of Blood Island, tries his best but the film lacks that the drive and pacing of the previous two films and even drags in places. Definitely the lesser film in the set but definitely worth a watch, as is anything with Grier in the Seventies.

The odd one out in the set is The Arena, whilst the other three films revel in their modern Philippines local; this film is set in ancient Rome and pits Pam Grier as a Gladiator with her old sparring partner from the Eddie Romero directed Black Mama, White Mama; Margaret Markhov. The film is often listed as being directed by Steve Carver of Lone Wolf McQuade fame but many claim that the majority of the film was helmed by sleaze merchant Joe D' Amato, which probably explains why this is the film where Grier displays the most naked flesh. D' Amato, who went on to shoot video nasties like Absurd and Anthropophagus the Beast, relishes the moments when the girls escape their prison, slashing throats and throwing spears as they break out. Whilst the setting is different, the prison motifs are the same. The Arena certainly looks the part; ancient Rome defies your budgetary expectations. The Romans rampage through the countryside, pillaging and collecting young girls as they go, forcing them into slavery, prostitution and battle.  The Arena is great fun, the women, whilst in prison take every possibility to strut their stuff in the gladiator ring. The films final escape also cranks up the tension, elevating The Arena above the low budget period piece that many take it for.
All things considered, the films don't look too bad; one assumes film stock is not treated well in the Philippines. Yes there is print damage, grain and some scenes are very dark, especially in The Arena and Women in Chains but overall the prints are colourful and watchable. On the downside the films are all presented in full screen and The Arena, in particular, would have benefited being shown in its original scope format.
Likewise, the stereo sound track is what it is. It's clear and listenable which is a plus.
Extra Features
As all of the discs were previously available separately, each of the discs, as Umbrella tends to do, features many of the same extras. As one of the extras is the fabulous documentary Baadasssss Cinema that's not necessarily a bad thing but it does mean we have four copies to watch. The 60-minute feature tells the story of the history of the blaxploitation genre and includes clips galore and interviews with the likes of Pam Grier and Issac hayes. It's a great documentary and really tries to explain the social and political climate that produced the films.

All of the discs also feature a chat between producer Roger Corman and Leonard Matlin where the legendary producer talks about the era when Woman in Prison films were his bread and butter. Also in an added bonus under the title of stills gallery is an excellent compilation of clips from Corman's entire career; The Trip, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Masque of the Red Death, The Man with the X- Ray Eyes, they are all here..even the terrible Frankenstein Unbound.

Jack Hill provides running commentaries for The Big Doll House and Big Bird Cage and once again shows that he truly is one of the great-unsung heroes of cult cinema. The fact that he also directed Switchblade Sisters and Spider Baby only proves the fact more.

Things are rounded of with the usual collection of trailers.
The Verdict
An excellent set and a value packed option if you do not own any of these films already. The presence of a couple of Jack Hill commentaries should put this at the top of your shopping list. As rip roaring adventures with lashing of bad taste entertainment you can't go wrong, and if the prospect of four Women in Prison film's maybe isn't your cup of tea, just think, how often do you get to be locked up with someone like Pam Grier for a few hours?
Movie Score
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